Foto/Gráfica: A New History of the Latin-American Photobook

A complex, multifaceted, historical and educational presentation of the history of the Latin-American photobook is currently on display at Le Bal in Paris. It is a lot to absorb in a single visit, but definitely worth the effort.

All of the following text and images were supplied by Le Bal:

“Photography,” wrote August Sander, “is like a mosaic: it only achieves a synthesis when you can display it all at once.”
In order to arrive at such a synthesis, [pre-digital] photographers have two forms at their disposal: the exhibition or the book, two continuous sequences of images structured into a comprehensive argument. FOTO/GRÁFICA thus constitutes an original approach insofar as it combines these two forms: an exhibition of photobooks as autonomous objects, accompanied by vintage prints, films and mock-ups.
This effort entailed more than three years of interviewing photographers, graphic designers, collectors, researchers and publishers on both sides of the Atlantic and combing rare bookstores and public and private libraries. Tracking down the ‘unknown’ on a continental scale transformed this investigation into a vertiginously exciting quest which had as its outcome an anthology of 150 books published between 1921 and 2009: The Latin American Photo Book.
The books which came to light are incisive, complex, unsettling and often forgotten, star-crossed or otherwise secret works. The exhibition FOTO/GRÁFICA presents forty of them, most of which are unknown to the public, and thus serves to reveal Latin America’s remarkable contribution to the world history of the photobook.
The idea of seeking and presenting the best photobooks of Latin America was born during the 2007 Latin American forum on photography in São Paulo. On this occasion we observed the critical lack of a cartography of the books published in the 20th century on the continent. A rigorous investigation was lead to offset this silence by a systematic rescue of unquestionably valuable works. The research focused exclusively on photobooks published in Latin America by Latin American authors involved in carrying out their work. During three years, through 19 countries from Cuba to Patagonia, we interviewed photographers, graphic artists, collectors, scholars, publishers, and sifted through their libraries and archives. Chasing the unknown on the scale of a continent has converted this investigation into a quest both breathtaking and electrifying. The result is surprising. Powerful, complex, troubling, often forgotten, cursed or secret books have emerged. Throughout the pages, unfolds ‘‘something that is part caress, complaint, appeal, complicity, bitter denunciation’’ (Julio Cortazar). Finally, this critical study reveals the remarkable contribution of Latin America in world history of the photobook.
— Horacio Fernández, curator

The exhibition begins with two major works echoing pre-Columbian America: one shows the landscape and its first inhabitants, the other, the cultures destroyed by colonisation.
In Amazônia (1978), by Brazilian photographers Claudia Andujar (Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 1931- ) and George Love (Charlotte, North Carolina, 1937-São Paulo, Brazil, 1995), the primeval America, Paradise lost and its inhabitants, the masters of the Earth are evoked through a dramatic, film-like narrative charged with emotion.
Alturas de Macchu Picchu (Heights of Machu Picchu, 1954) brings together one of the major poems of Nobel Prize laureate Pablo Neruda and the photographs of the great master Martín Chambi (Coaza, Peru, 1891-Cuzco, Peru, 1973). These archaeological photographs are devoid of any human presence, unlike Neruda’s verses, populated by ‘Juan Stonecutter, son of Wiracocha’ and other inhabitants of the vast Inca city lost for centuries before its rediscovery in 1911.
Photobooks of protest and propaganda trace a visual history of Latin America in the twentieth century which is fraught with implacable tensions between conservative and reformist ideologies. This history begins with the period of the great Mexican Revolution of the 1910s as related in the Álbum histórico gráfico (Graphic history album, 1921) of Agustín Víctor Casasola (Mexico City, 1874-1938).
The political, ideological version of history is propaganda. It found expression in Argentina during the government of General Juan Domingo Perón in anonymous collective works such as Argentina en marcha (Argentina on the march, 1950) and Eva Perón (1952). The same was true in Bolivia during the 1950s, when the government commissioned a heroic narrative on the miners, El precio del estaño (The price of tin, 1955) from Argentine photographer Gustavo Thorlichen (Hamburg, Germany, 1905-Málaga, Spain, 1986). In a more documentary vein, Candomblé (1957) by José Medeiros (Teresina, Brazil, 1921 L’Aquila, Italy, 1990) captures the secret, forbidden rituals of Afro-Brazilian culture.
The triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 mobilised an entire generation of outstanding photographers and graphic designers. The books of the early years embody faith in the future and rejection of the past, as seen in Cuba: Z.D.A. (Cuba Agrarian Development Zone, 1960), Sartre visita a Cuba (Sartre visits Cuba, 1960) and El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba (Socialism and man in Cuba, 1965). This revolutionary hope for change spread throughout Latin America, as demonstrated by photobooks such as América, un viaje a través de la injusticia (America, a journey through injustice, 1970), a synthesis of observation, emotion and culture on a continental scale by Enrique Bostelmann (Guadalajara, Mexico, 1939-Mexico City, 2003).
The victory of reactionary forces in the 1970s set off a spiral of violence. In Chile, the 1973 military coup led by General Pinochet sought to justify itself with Chile ayer hoy (Chile yesterday today, 1975), an archetypal example of right-wing propaganda which was countered by works such as Chile o muerte (Chile or death, 1974), a collage of documents, photographs and caricatures. Uchuraccay: Testimonio de una masacre (Uchuraccay: Testimony of a massacre, 1983) attests to the terrible war between Peru and the Shining Path terrorist guerrilla mouvement, whilst the recent Los que se quedan /Those that are still here (2007) by Geovanny Verdezoto (Santo Domingo de los Colorados, Ecuador, 1984- ) examines the situation of those who choose to remain rather than emigrate.

Buenos Aires, by Horacio Coppola (1936).

Latin America’s cities have inspired major photobooks. Doorway to Brasilia (1959), a work by graphic designer Aloísio Magalhães (Recife, Brazil, 1927-Padua, Italy, 1982) and North American artist and printer Eugene Feldman, extols the architectural transformation of the landscape by means of an extraordinary demonstration of graphic ingenuity. More reserved, but just as monumental, Buenos Aires (1936) embodies the ‘photographic vision’ of Horacio Coppola (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1906- ), in an empty urban stage. By contrast, La Ciudad de Mexico III (Mexico City III) by Nacho López (Tampico, Mexico, 1923-Mexico City, 1983) celebrates the street life uniting architecture and city-dwellers.
In Buenos Aires Buenos Aires (1958) by Sara Facio (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1932- ) and Alicia D’Amico (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1933-2001), the only decoration is the crowd, the hustle and bustle of ordinary people. Similarly privileging the public over the setting, Avándaro (1971) by Graciela Iturbide (Mexico City, 1942- ) recreates the energy of Mexico’s first rock festival through the reframing and repetition of the images. Both of these books are distinguished by their graphic design, the work of Oscar Cesar Mara and Antonio Serna, respectively. Color natural (Natural colour, 1969) by Venezuelan photographer Graziano Gasparini (Gorizia, Italy, 1924- ), meanwhile, celebrates the gleaming, artificial colour of the city of Maracaibo.

Buenos Aires Buenos Aires, by Sara Facio (1958).


Sistema Nervioso, by Barbara Brändli (1975).


Sistema Nervioso, by Barbara Brändli (1975).


Sistema Nervioso, by Barbara Brändli (1975).

A certain number of Latin American photobooks stand out for the complexity of their narratives and the uniqueness of their form.
El rectángulo en la mano (The rectangle in the hand, 1963), for example, is a moving little artist’s book with a marvellous form, a fragile masterpiece by the mythical photographer Sergio Larrain (Santiago, Chile, 1931- ).
In Sistema nervioso (Nervous system, 1975), Venezuelan photographer Barbara Brändli (Schaffhausen, Switzerland, 1932- ), graphic designer John Lange and writer Román Chalbaud present the city of Caracas like a puzzle composed of enigmatic signs reflecting ‘the chaos, the improvisation, the humour, the grotesqueness . . . ’
In Fotografías (Photographs, 1983), photographer Fernell Franco (Versalles, Colombia, 1942-Cali, Colombia, 2006) sheds light on endless mysteries: ‘I liked to photograph the way the shadows gradually disappeared into total darkness and the light died’. Dissatisfied with the quality of the printing, Franco decided to destroy his book, and only a few copies are to be found today.
El cubano se ofrece (These are the Cubans, 1986), an essay by Iván Cañas (Havana, Cuba, 1946- ) on life in a Cuban village, shows the other side of official propaganda stereotypes. Retromundo (Retroworld, 1986), by Venezuelan photographer Paolo Gasparini (Gorizia, Italy, 1934- ) in close collaboration with graphic designer Álvaro Sotillo, contrasts two ways of looking: that of Europe and North America, which proliferates in a flood of chaotic images, and that of the New World, which goes beyond appearances to privilege direct contact with beings and things.
The more theatrical photographs of Brazilian artist Miguel Rio Branco (Las Palmas, Spain, 1946- ) refer explicitly to film and painting and, with the blood-red bestiary Nakta (1996), undertake a ‘journey of pain, of the material nature of suffering’.

Auto-photos by Gretta (1978).

During the 1960s, many artists considered the process of creation more important than its outcome, the final work. Photographs were thus a means of documenting creative acts which left no other trace. Among Latin American artists’ books stemming from this movement, we find records of performances like Auto-photos (Self-photos, 1978) by the Brazilian artist Gretta (Athens, Greece, 1947- ) or works on the body like Autocopias (Self-copies, 1975) by Venezuelan artist Claudio Perna (Milan, Italy, 1938-Holguín, Cuba, 1997), designed by Álvaro Sotillo.
There were also growing numbers of experimental works on the urban space, such as Sin saber que existías y sin poderte explicar (Without knowing you existed and without being able to explain, 1975) by Eduardo Terrazas (Guadalajara, Mexico, 1936- ) and Arnaldo Coen (Mexico City, 1940- ), which is at once an inventory of merchandise, a chromatic adventure and a celebration of graphic design.
The questioning of artistic language is at the heart of such outstanding books as Fallo fotográfico (Photographic verdict, 1981), a conceptual work by Eugenio Dittborn (Santiago, Chile, 1943- ), or Ediciones económicas de fotografía chilena (Affordable editions of Chilean photography, 1983), a short lived project for photocopied books which gave rise to works by photographers Paz Errázuriz (Santiago, Chile, 1944- ), Mauricio Valenzuela (Santiago, Chile, 1951- ) and Luis Weinstein (Santiago, Chile, 1957-).
Literature plays a central role in Latin American culture, which is often described as being more ‘literate’ than visual. Photobooks combining texts and images are noteworthy for their numbers and quality alike. When poetry reaches out to photography, the result goes beyond the impact of the words alone and the photographs read like a text, far from any attempt at illustration.
In Venezuela during the 1960s, the collective El Techo de la Ballena (The roof of the whale) devoted itself to ‘terrorism in the arts’. One of the results of their activity is Asfalto-Infierno (Asphalt-Inferno, 1963), by writer Adriano González León and artist Daniel González (San Juan de los Morros, Venezuela, 1934- ), which shows the full extent of the collective hell recorded on the pavements of Caracas.
Through the graphic design and photographs of Wesley Duke Lee (São Paulo, Brazil, 1931-2010), the poems of Robert Piva’s Paranóia (Paranoia, 1963) constitute a ‘hallucinatory vision’ of São Paulo.
With Versos de salón (Salon verses, 1970), Chilean poet Nicanor Parra invites readers on a roller-coaster ride which designer Fernán Meza joyously interprets through the flip-book style appearance, carving up, resurrection and final.
Photobook publishing has met with great success in Latin America these past years. More than ever, as Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó puts it, the idea is “to use the book as an ‘exhibition space,’ with its own graphic characteristics.”
Urban photography has enjoyed a revival with Siesta argentina (Argentine siesta, 2003) by Facundo de Zuviría (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1954- ) and Noturno São Paulo (São Paulo nocturnes, 2002) by Cássio Vasconcellos (São Paulo, Brazil, 1965- ).
Among noteworthy artist’s photobooks are the performance anthology created by Carlos Amorales (Mexico City, 1970- ), entitled los Amorales (The immoral ones [which is also a play on the artist’s name], 2000), and the surprising family album Miguel Calderón (2007) by the artist of the same name (Mexico City, 1971- ).
The archive is also a veritable genre in the visual arts of this new century, with such ambitious works as O arquivo universal (The universal archive, 2003) by Rosângela Rennó (Bela Horizonte, Brazil, 1962- ) and the compilation of photographs showing strollers from another time in Archivo porcontacto (Archive by contact, 2009) by Oscar Muñoz (Popayán, Colombia, 1951- ).
Last of all, several books demonstrate the renewed interest in documentary photography, such as On the Sixth Day (2005) by Argentine photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti (New York, US, 1968- ).
Foto/Gráfica: A New History of the Latin-American Photobook
Curator: Horatio Fernandez
January 20 – April 8, 2012
Le Bal
6, Impasse de la Défense
75018 Paris

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